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The Spy

By: James Fenimore Cooper

The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground is a novel by American writer James Fenimore Cooper. His second novel, it was published in 1821 by Wiley & Halsted. The plot is set during the American Revolution and was inspired in part by the family friend John Jay. The Spy was successful and began Cooper's reputation as a popular and important American writer.

The action takes place during the American Revolution, at "The Locusts", which is believed to have been the real family home of John Jay in Rye, Westchester County, New York, and is now known as the Jay Estate. The plot ranges back and forth over the neutral ground between the British and the Continental armies as the home stands between those lines.

An unknown man, known as Mr. Harper, asks for shelter at The Locusts amidst a storm. Mr. Wharton (a British sympathizer), his daughters Sarah and Frances and sister-in-law Miss Peyton, agree to admit him into their home. They are suspicious of him and are cautious in discussing the current Revolution in his presence. Soon, a peddler named Harvey Birch comes along with an unknown man also seeking shelter. Harper eyes him carefully. The stranger is really Henry Wharton, a captain for the British. Harper leaves the family, but not before revealing he was already aware of the true identity of Captain Wharton. Birch, who has met privately with Mr. Harper for unknown reasons, strongly urges Captain Wharton to return to his post.


A group of colonial troops investigates the home of Harvey Birch, who has gone away, before making their way to The Locusts. There, Major Peyton Dunwoodie is confronted by Frances Wharton, who loves him and sympathizes with the revolutionary cause. She pleads with him not to arrest or harm her brother, Captain Wharton, but Dunwoodie feels his duty too strongly. He learns that Captain Wharton has disguised himself and used a letter forged with George Washington's signature to avoid being found. Dunwoodie realizes that Washington's signature is authentic, however, but the Captain cannot explain how he procured it. Dunwoodie arrests Captain Wharton but learns British troops are in the area. Dunwoodie rushes to assist his fellow colonists, allowing Captain Wharton to escape in the confusion. Captain Wharton tells the British commanding officer, Colonel Wellmere, to beware of Dunwoodie and his fellow troops. Wellmere does not take his advice and skirmish ensues; he is injured and Captain Wharton is recaptured by Captain Lawton. As the British troops make their retreat, Dunwoodie brings his friend Captain Singleton to The Locusts to be cared for by Dr. Sitgreaves. Frances suggests summoning Singleton's sister to assist.


Harvey Birch comes under suspicion for being a British spy although he is really a Patriot. Harper is actually George Washington in disguise with whom Birch has other meetings in the course of the book. Birch's role is revealed only after he falls in battle.


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James Fenimore Cooper was an American writer of the first half of the 19th century. His historical romances depicting frontier and Native American life from the 17th to the 19th centuries created a un...

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